This Day In History: December 17

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On December 17, 2010 26-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolates in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. His dramatic action is considered the start of the Arab Spring, a period of pro-democracy uprisings that reverberated through North Africa and the Middle East.   

Mohamed Bouazizi lived in the impoverished city of Sidi Bouzid, about 100 miles south of the capital Tunis. As the prices of commodities spiked across the world, Bouazizi found that rising prices made it difficult for him to afford food for his family with the money he earned selling produce in the center of town.

On the morning of December 17, Bouazizi was selling fruit without a government permit. Faida Hamdi, a municipal inspector, confiscated Bouazizi's merchandise and, according to some residents, slapped the fruit seller. Bouazizi went to the police station to retrieve his confiscated electric scale and was refused, then asked to meet with the governor and was again refused. At around 11:30 am, he brought his cart outside the governor's office, poured flammable liquid over his head and ignited his entire body.

Bouazizi's cousin Ali Bouazizi received a call about the self-immolation, ran to the governor's office and used his Samsung cell phone to record his cousin's body being loaded into an ambulance. Ali Bouazizi then spent the afternoon filming the protest that Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation unleashed. He uploaded the footage to his Facebook and sent it to the Arab news network Al Jazeera, which played the images on TV that evening. By the next day, protests had erupted in cities across Tunisia.

The uprising was explosive, with thousands of young people taking to the streets in Sidi Bouzid and beyond. Tunisia's authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, at first responded by sending police to crack down on the protests. On December 28, he visited Bouazizi in the hospital. Ben Ali also had the officer who allegedly slapped Bouazizi arrested. Bouazizi died a few days later and Ben Ali and his family were forced to flee to Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter.

The protests, which became known as the Jasmine Revolution, lasted a month and inspired similar revolutions in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria, where citizens railed against high unemployment, high food prices, corruption and political repression. Tunisian-born writer Feriel Bouhafa called this an "endogenous revolution," which occurred because of the specific social and political context in Tunisia. Tunisians had grown resentful of their authoritarian government, creating a powder keg awaiting the spark of Bouazizi's public death.

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